Archive for March, 2015

An Experiment in Silence Day 5

Note: I decided to give up aural media for two weeks. This meant I would mute music, films, TV, YouTube, audiobooks and other media at all times. The point was to minimize unnecessary junk entering my ears in my daily life.

The past few days were difficult. It was fairly easy to stay away from media at first, but then I started slipping. Songs were still playing in my head. By now I had gotten used to them. The gym radio was annoying, but funny at the same time. Prince is a great artist, but his music did not facilitate my workout. The café where I occasionally have breakfast played the same songs they usually do on repeat. I had forgotten my headphones and was forced to listen to them. At home, I listened to a few YouTube videos, but in my defence they were guides to new software I got for work. What was unforgivable was that I soon went back to my old ways of watching other useless videos and wasting time. Hopefully this will not happen again.

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There were actual withdrawal symptoms. A constant urge in the back of my head reminded me of what I was missing. The mind began to construct arguments for why background music would be helpful: work might be more efficient, there would be less procrastination, and so on. It would have been difficult to get to sleep had I not felt so exhausted by work and other activities. All this reminded me that the smallest habits can be the hardest to break. I decided to go on despite everything even though I no longer think the experiment will achieve anything or cause anything but annoyances and pointless anxiety. If there was one single thing that promised otherwise, it was that I did not feel the need to use noise-cancelling as much. This would suggest that my tolerance to noise grew when the overall amount of noise went down. Perhaps, then, we should think of noise sensitivity in terms of a bulk amount of exposure to noise that builds up to a point where any further noise becomes unbearable. We will see.

An Experiment in Silence Day 1

Note: I decided to give up aural media for two weeks. This meant I would mute music, films, TV, YouTube, audiobooks and other media at all times. The point was to minimize unnecessary junk entering my ears in my daily life.

The first day did not begin quite as well as I had hoped. The radio was on during breakfast and it would have been silly to ask it to be turned off. We listened to a lecture on British agriculture and some music. I cannot remember anything about the music, but the lecturer had an annoying voice and was obviously reading her presentation from a paper. The rest of the day was better. I went to the gym and wore noise-cancelling earbuds which blocked out the music from the speakers very well. Again, no memory of any of the music that did get past the noise-cancelling.

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I noticed three things. First, I was very fidgety. My attention span was short and I moved from one potential distraction to the next all the time. Second, songs that I had heard a long time ago kept playing in my head like a constant flow of earworms that were at times annoying and pleasant at other times. Earlier I would have put on some background music, perhaps listened to the songs that came to me and eventually moved on to some others. Now, I let them repeat freely and, among other things, analyzed the guitar riffs I heard. This made me want to make music myself. Thirdly, the day went by incredibly slowly. It sounds odd, but it really felt like there were more hours in the day.

An Experiment in Silence

WP_20140522_14_29_57_ProLike most people, I love the Internet. I do not watch television, listen to much radio, play games or buy that many records. Everything I need is provided by my tablet via WiFi and I have control over almost all the media content I consume. You often hear concerns about the amount of media junk people accept into their lives. Television’s passivating influence has long been an issue, but now that people have a much bigger say in what they consume, these concerns have naturally changed. People seek out harmful entertainment, spend too much time in virtual worlds and social media, play games that may have a bad influence on them, watch too much porn, and so on. The new controversies are interesting, but there is another issue that should be considered. Unless I am mistaken, most of the concerns deal with visual media and very rarely does anyone think about what we allow into our ears. That is why I have decided to conduct an experiment by giving up aural media for two weeks.

It may sound a bit gimmicky, but there is a reason for focusing on sound. I have always been sensitive to noise. Loud sounds have always made me anxious. They have even triggered migraine attacks. I have played in rock bands for much of my life, but the sound of a band is a different thing altogether. It is directed, coherent and wraps around you like a warm blanket. Incoherent noise is simply impossible to process in the same way. There is no meaning to the latter and its shapelessness is a source of great discomfort to me. Riding the tube, for example, can be absolutely terrifying. But volume is not everything. There is also a different kind of noise that produces nearly the same effect, which I have termed semantic garbage. A conversation taking place in the background while waiting in line or riding a bus, for example, can be disquieting even at low volumes. A radio playing in the background can produce a similar effect. The two together with the sound of the wheels can create an unbearable cacophony. Again, the brain gets going and tries to dig meaning out of the noise and soon exhausts itself. I envy people who can drown these things out, because I am obviously very bad at it.

Luckily my friends and loved ones have accepted my odd impairment and I have discovered ways of getting around these issues. One of these is to use noise-cancelling headphones. On the tube, I put them on and they enable me to behave like a normal person and have conversations. When I walk around London, a very noisy city, I rarely go without them. Sometimes I have nothing playing through them and just use the noise-cancelling function to block out sound. It may be strange, but quite a lot of people have headphones on walking around town, so it does not look strange at all. Wearing these things a lot, I have picked up the habit of listening to audiobooks almost all the time while commuting or walking around. This combined with the fact that I listen to online content all the time while at the office or at home means that I am constantly submerged in either music, YouTube babble, books or films.

The volume is never high and I am not afraid all this will affect my hearing. Rather, I am concerned that the constant noise that I use to block out noise might be exhausting my cognitive faculties and fuzzying up my brain in other ways. I also feel I might be hooked. When a moment of silence creeps up on me, I feel anxious. This frightens me a little, so why not take the plunge and try to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. The rules are as follows: I will mute music, films, TV and YouTube series, audiobooks and other media for at least two weeks. Noise-cancelling headphones are still a necessity, because they enhance silence, which is after all the whole point. For anyone interested in following this little experiment, I will keep a log of it on this blog and on Twitter. Let us see and listen what happens.

Hipsters and Sincerity

WP_20150302_19_44_36_ProI recently read R Jay Magill’s Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion That We All Have Something to Say (no Matter How Dull) (2012). The historical timescale from the Protestant Reformation to postmodern hipsters would prompt tuts from more serious historians, but I have always liked this type of broad history. With certain reservations, of course. The book was a pleasant and light read sitting on the bus or tube commuting from my East London lodgings to town. It was easy enough to finish in time for my trip to Williamsburg’s hipster haunts in Brooklyn. Despite the hip title and its ironic hipster-critique-of-hipsters idiom, the book was an entertaining exercise in Lovejoyish history of ideas in popular form.

The religious origins of sincerity as a concept were explained rather quickly, but this was not a big problem for someone who was raised Lutheran. Those who were not might need more, but any number of works about the subject can be found in any decent library or bookstore. The writer who was revealed to be at the root of the modern secular concept of sincerity was Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). His way of approaching writing in his Essays (1588) was to confess his weaknesses and to mock his own human frailties in a self-conscious manner. He had principles and moral codes of conduct, but despite these he wanted his readers to know that he was a human being like everyone else. He made mistakes, did stupid things and sometimes failed to live up to his own standards. The one standard he held dearest in his essays was his unwavering sincerity. Magill calls Montaigne “the first modern sensibility—a figure self-ironizing of his social role” (39). Others have called Montaigne the first modern subject and despite the hyperbole this is not too far from the truth. Montaigne was very privileged in that he was able to speak and conduct himself freely. He was wealthy and well-connected, but these were not the only things that created his privilege. He was brave enough to withdraw into his chambers to write the Essays even though his services were in great need.

I have spoken to professors who have lamented the fact that they cannot really speak their minds because they are part of a machine that requires them to watch their words very carefully. CEOs and politicians are usually in the same boat. We think of these people as some of the most privileged in the world, but the truth is that their social roles force them to censor themselves in order to maintain their position and to keep up facades that support their underlings. I doubt that many are somehow malicious and do this out of spite, but they rarely have the privilege to speak or write like Montaigne. In a way, they are less free, although I am fairly sure the remunerations are quite adequate to justify any pangs of insincerity they may feel. It would be silly to think of successful people as victims of the system they maintain or their own success within the system. There are privileges like sincerity and there are other kinds of privileges—to think of privilege in terms of one overriding privilege to rule them all would be sloppy and infantile.

So what has all this to do with hipsters? I took away two things from Magill’s concluding chapters. First, we live in a world that has returned to very harsh values. Magill writes insightfully about a generation of overeducated and, yes, privileged young people who have seen the onset of the War on Terror and destructive recessions. The English or Arts major has the wrong degree for wars or cut-throat business transactions. What do you do when you find yourself in a hostile environment like this? You mock the world around you and ridicule the absurdity of a weltanschauung that makes 1984 and American Psycho look like Disneyfied imitations of modernity. What else can you do but use the one freedom you have. Secondly, hipsters are the new Puritans who have a hostile attitude towards cowardly fake sincerity. This is in itself ironic, because there seems to be less and less of the real thing around. The marketplace has noticed that sincerity sells and has packaged it into cute consumable packages. We are all at the mercy of these trends, fake or not.

The political rhetoric of the business elite is a dead world. Puritans can be tedious, especially those of a bureaucratic mindset, and few deserve more sympathy than the Patrick Batemans of the world. If you find yourself between the suits and Puritan ideologues the best option is to drop out of society like the hippies or the early Puritans who escaped to America. Berlin has been a hipster hotspot recently. I have heard Paris might be the next one. The cynics among us would say that there are no more Americas to escape to and that dropping out in the digital age is near impossible. But the place to escape to is perhaps of secondary importance. Your escape might be the Internet and a cup of coffee in the middle of the night. What might be more important in the long run is that a generation of people have once again learned to see their society as a place to escape from. There’s nothing cynical or ironic about that.